It’s almost here — the WNBA’s landmark 20th season is close to tip off.
“I can’t wait,” exclaimed ESPN Analyst Carolyn Peck during a MSR phone interview Thursday. “I’m so glad that we are counting down in days and weeks, instead of months, so we can get back to our women’s basketball fix.”
She is part of the three-person broadcast team in town for Saturday’s season opener (7:30 pm ET), the network’s first of 14 scheduled regular season games this year. The game is one of five scheduled matches on Saturday, and one of two nationally televised games: San Antonio plays at Dallas, which was in Tulsa last season on NBA TV (8:30 pm ET).
The ESPN telecast will features the league’s last two champions — Minnesota (2015) and Phoenix (2014). The two clubs have combined for six of the last nine WNBA titles (three apiece), and each team has won 33 times in their all-time regular season series.
Minnesota and Phoenix “have set a standard,” stated Peck of Saturday’s Lynx-Mercury game, which will be televised in prime time. The contest is all star-studded: “You are going to have six U.S. Olympians on the court,” noted Peck of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Lindsay Whalen for the Lynx, and Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner for the Mercury — all will be teammates going for the gold in Rio this summer.
But for starters, both teams are battling for league supremacy, as this season the WNBA introduces a new playoff format in which all eight qualifying clubs make it by records, regardless of conference. “Every game matters,” continued Peck. “I think that brings that intensity to each game.”
When asked if Minnesota and Phoenix are still considered a notch above the rest of the 12-team WNBA she replied, “I think they have the history to be in that elite group to be the teams to beat to go after a WNBA championship. But you cannot discount what New York did throughout the regular season last year with the [league’s] best record, or Indiana getting themselves in a five-game series, taking it to game five in the finals [against Minnesota].
“No team has gone completely undefeated from start to finish,” she pointed out. “There is an opportunity in each game to see great competition.”
The little talked about story lines to start the W season include the recent trades, such as New York acquiring Amanda Zahui B. from Dallas, and Layshia Clarendon traded from Indiana to Atlanta, said Peck.
She also is looking at Fowles’ first full season in Minnesota — the Lynx acquired her in a mid-season trade last year, and Curt Miller’s first year as Connecticut coach. “He made a lot of good moves so far,” including the addition of three rookies: Rachel Banham, Morgan Tuck and Jonquel Jones, and the return of Chiney Ogwumike, who missed last season due to injury, she added.
Peck also will watch Los Angeles’ Candace Parker, who made news recently after not being selected to the U.S. Olympic squad. “You had to eliminate somebody because there was so much talent,” said the broadcaster. “I would predict that this would be one of the most motivated years for Candace Parker. I think that she will have an outstanding season.”
She also likes the new faces this season: “There is intensity at the start of this season. It is going to be fun to watch,” predicted Peck.
Also, this is Indiana’s Tamika Catchings’ final season — will she get a Kobe Bryant-like sendoff? “She deserves it,” contended Peck. “Does she want it? I don’t think that’s the first [thing] in her mind. I think what she wants more is to be able to go out leaving the Indiana Fever with another championship.”
Rather than a formal “farewell tour,” Catchings is raising awareness for her Catch the Stars foundation by auctioning personal mementos, including her game shoes at each game this season, and presenting $2,000 grants to local charities in each league city this season.
Peck said this is fitting to Catchings’ nature. “I hope that every team in the league gives her the honor and recognition for what she’s given to the game in every city she goes to,” she stated.
Finally, Peck and the rest of us W fans and followers will get its opening day: “I know it’s basketball, not baseball. But let’s play ball,” she declared.
Extra point —
The WNBA this weekend rolls out its new full-season subscription game package. Formerly called WNBA LiveAccess, WNBA LEAGUE PASS “is a digital only package,” explained Mike Lewis, NBA senior vice president, digital product and emerging technology. In a MSR phone interview earlier this week, Lewis pointed out that fans have three options to purchase: a full-season package ($16.99), or a game-by-game basis ($1.99 each) or a specific team package ($9.99).
Lewis added that fans also will be able to have direct access to live WNBA games through social media. “We have very tech-savvy fans. Literally one tap from Twitter, you can be watching a WNBA game. Whether it is on your phone, tablet, Apple TV or Chromecast, you now have the ability to” watch games this season, he pointed out.
“I think you will see a fine-tuned new product,” surmised Lewis on the technical bugs that fans in the past complained about. “We are making it very easy for our fans to follow the WNBA.”
A WNBA LEAGUE PASS free trial is available from Saturday May 14 through Tuesday May 17.
The MSR will highlight the WNBA’s historic 20th season with our “20 in 20” series of articles and columns for 20 consecutive weeks, as well as regular dispatches on MSR News Online.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.